…being as close to war as you ever want to get. At least, that’s what the back of the box claims. If you’re unfamiliar with the Operation Flashpoint series, let’s get something out of the way right off the top. While Dragon Rising is a modern military shooter, it’s not of the run-and-gun variety like Call of Duty. It’s a tactical shooter more along the lines of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, even more methodically so. Here’s the stage: Russia and China are engaged in a fictional conflict. The two nations are contesting the island of Skira where a large oil reserve lies untapped. With China threatening their immediate border, the Russians seek help from the United States of America. That’s where you come in, as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, tasked with capturing Skira from the Chinese military on behalf of the Russians.
What Works / What Doesn’t Work
I don’t normally lump these two sections together but I’m making an exception for Dragon Rising because almost everything about this game is a double-edged sword. For instance, the game sports a multi-tiered, radial menu system in which to command your squad. The command system covers tactics, including rules of engagement, formations and spread, as well as orders pertaining to movement, and offensive and defensive maneuvering. However, the game does a lackluster job getting players up to speed on the slightly cumbersome system. Hints are dropped sporadically throughout the opening mission, but only once – as you approach your first firefight – does the game offer any help with regards to the command system, and even then it’s a basic order of moving your squad behind cover, getting them to provide suppressive fire, and then having them regroup once the enemy is eliminated. More advanced tasks, such as selecting specific units to command in order to flank the enemy, are left up to the player to figure out on their own. As a result, you might find yourself replaying the opening mission a few times over until you’ve got a solid grasp of the in-depth command system.
Friendly AI is erratic. On one hand, your squadmates are excellent at spotting and calling out enemy positions, they’re very good shots, and you couldn’t survive most missions without your medic. On the other hand, they generally have a difficult time following commands. Order your squad to move behind cover and it won’t be uncommon to see one of them take up position in front of said cover, or to the side of it. Order your medic to treat a wounded soldier and it won’t be uncommon to watch the pair move to where they think is a safe location, only in reality they’re in direct view of the enemy. Order your squad to assault an enemy position and gawk as they do so at a snail’s pace (particularly infuriating during timed objectives, more on that later). It’s not uncommon for one of your squadmates to walk directly into your line of sight, nor is it uncommon – especially during the opening mission – to witness your engineer pull out his SMAW anti-tank rocket launcher and fire it into a rocky outcrop not 10 feet in front of him, killing himself and potentially your entire squad. There are too many instances when you have to baby your squad and that doesn’t lend to an authentic military experience. On the enemy side of things, the AI is much more effective. The enemy is equally adept at spotting you, again often before you do them, and for the most part they make strong tactical decisions. The moment I saw an enemy soldier move swiftly to nurse an injured ally back into action, I knew I was up against a worthy adversary.
Codemasters touts Skira’s landmass at 220 square kilometers. Yes, it’s a big island, but it doesn’t always translate into open world warfare. Each mission presents primary and secondary objectives (completing secondary objectives often results in additional support for primary objectives), and you’ll be directed to those objectives via waypoints. You don’t necessarily have to follow the waypoints to a tee, you can approach a given scenario from any angle you please, but there’s really no reason to veer too far off the beaten path. The island is quite barren. You could walk several klicks in any one direction and not find a single thing of interest. Besides, you’ll be doing enough walking as it is. After awhile you won’t have any desire to go on a nature hike. Frequently the mission objectives are timed and so you won’t even have a choice but to follow the waypoints. Here’s this huge island as your battlefield, go nuts, but if you don’t reach Point A within the next minute than the mission is a failure. How does that encourage exploration or creative tactical planning? Here’s another kicker, you can’t customize your weapons prior to deployment. You have to make due with what you’re assigned. That being said, the campaign’s eleven missions alternate between Sabre teams so you will get your hands on a variety of weapons as you lace up the boots of different squad leaders.
There’s a tug-of-war going on in Dragon Rising when it comes to realism. I rather like the idea that when you get shot you have to take a moment to dress the wound using your field kit otherwise you bleed out. That’s just a temporary solution too. When you have a moment away from combat you need to order the medic to further treat your wound (read: give you a needle). Only then are you rid of any side effects from the injury, such as the inability to sprint when you’ve been shot in the leg. I also like that success in any given mission is not dependent on your ability to run-and-gun, but rather your ability to come up with and execute a plan of attack using flanking maneuvers, suppressive fire and other combat tactics. Unfortunately there are factors pulling in the opposite direction as well. One thing that bothered me to no end was the fact that you are the only soldier on the battlefield that can bleed out (not counting downed enemies). If you get shot, you’ve got a finite amount of time, depending on the severity of the wound, to dress it. Shoot an enemy, however, and they’re not required to do the same. How is that realistic?
There are opportunities throughout the campaign to hop into a handful of U.S. Marine and Chinese military vehicles, both ground and air-based, as the driver/pilot, a passenger or gunner. If you select the former, one of your squadmates will jump into the gunner’s seat, ready and willing to fire at enemy targets. If you choose to jump into the gunner’s chair yourself, however, even though one of your fellow soldiers will take the wheel they won’t take the initiative to drive anywhere until you command them to. The same goes for helicopters (even worse so, as ordering the pilot to move and hover, or move and land, often results in your squad disembarking the chopper and traveling by foot). In the end it's just not practical to jump into a helicopter unless you’re the pilot, nor in a ground-based vehicle unless you’re the driver. At least not while you’re playing with AI squadmates.
The good news is most of the aforementioned issues with friendly AI can be averted by playing the game with friends. Dragon Rising supports 4-player co-op through the entire single player campaign. Competitive multiplayer is also present, supporting up to 8 players, 4-on-4, with each player assigned three bots to form a squad. There are only two competitive game modes available: Annihilation, a variation of Team Deathmatch, and Infiltration, the more enjoyable of the two modes in which an infiltrating team is tasked with destroying an objective under the defending team’s control. Competitive multiplayer is a little thin compared to similar shooters, not to mention a little glitchy, and it should be noted that multiplayer maps are limited to 4 square kilometers in order to keep combat flowing.
Dragon Rising is an average looking game. As I said before, Skira’s landscape is pretty barren with sparse landmarks. If not for the oil reserve there would be no reason for this conflict to exist. Visual highlights include nice looking particle and smoke effects, and solid character and vehicle models. Character animation is hit and miss. There’s a nice animation when you reload your anti-tank rocket launcher, showing just how long the action takes, but then you don’t get an animation when you dress a wound. Then there are other odd moments like when you run into an enemy while driving a vehicle, and all that happens is they just stand there sliding along the ground rather than getting knocked and run over. Audio is equally average. Radio chatter is authentic and the main theme is an interesting blend of Asian and Celtic music, however weapon effects lack punch and in general the voice acting could have been stronger.
The Bottom Line
There’s a lot of unrealized potential in Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. I don’t believe the developers were able to squeeze as much out of the open world island warfare concept as they could have. For such a huge environment, the campaign is a little too scripted. Issues with friendly AI certainly don’t help the cause either. Having said that, if you’ve got a few buddies with whom you can play through the campaign co-operatively, the experience will be that much more enjoyable than for those who enroll on a solo mission.